At first glance, there's little to differentiate between the latest releases of the top Linux distributions: Red Hat's Fedora 12, Novell's openSUSE 11.2 and Canonical's Ubuntu 9.10. They each use the latest releases of open-source applications and are based on recent Linux kernels. Each of the distros also includes open-source applications such as OpenOffice and Firefox. However, a closer look reveals real differences -- in fact, each is meant for a different audience.
Underneath the hood, each of the three uses the 2.6.31 Linux kernel, but above that, their differences begin to surface. Fedora and Ubuntu, for example, use GNOME 2.28 (the latest version) for their default desktop, while openSUSE uses KDE 4.3.1.
How we tested
To put them through their paces, I installed each distribution natively on a Dell Inspiron 530S powered by a 2.2GHz Intel Pentium E2200 dual-core processor with an 800MHz front-side bus. The test machine had 4GB of RAM, a 500GB SATA drive and an integrated Intel 3100 GMA chipset.
I also ran the trio on an identical system with MEPIS Linux as the host operating system, in Sun's VirtualBox 3.0.12 virtual machine. Finally, I took turning running Fedora and openSUSE on my Lenovo ThinkPad R61 laptop and ran Ubuntu on my Dell Mini 9 netbook.
I had no trouble installing any of the distributions or updating them from release candidates to final versions. In each case, all I had to do was to put in the CD, DVD or USB memory stick, boot the PC from the installation media and let the distros install themselves.
In the same way, none of them had any trouble at all with Gigabit Ethernet or 802.11g Wi-Fi hardware. I was also able to easily log the systems into my hybrid Active Directory/Samba domain-based network. This network is based on servers running Windows Server 2008 R2, Windows Server 2003, SUSE Linux 11 and CentOS 5.4, a RHEL clone.
Even on this complex LAN, which also included NAS devices and several Canon and HP printers, each distribution ran flawlessly with the SMB (Server Message Block) and NFS (Network File System) servers. In addition, I was able to manage each of them from other PCs with the OpenSSH remote control program.
Of course, which Linux distro you select depends on your own needs and preferences. Hopefully, the three reviews that follow will help you make that choice.